Securing funding to combat the Zika virus was supposed to be one issue on Capitol Hill that would be free of the political games that are typical in election years. That's because we have all seen the heartbreaking photos of Zika babies and heard the toll the virus has had on families in affected countries, including right here in the United States.
The call for Washington to fund the effort to stop the spread of Zika was swift and bipartisan.
Even Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid took to the Senate floor in February to declare, “It is critical that we approve the funds immediately, and give our government the resources it needs to fight the virus.”
It initially appeared that it would happen. In May, every Senate Democrat joined with Senate Republicans to overwhelmingly pass an appropriations bill that included $1.1 billion to fight the Zika virus.
Since the House passed a different version of the bill, the legislation went through the conference process to reconcile the differences, resulting in a compromise bill that most importantly preserved the $1.1 billion to equip mosquito controllers, doctors, and researchers with the funding needed to combat Zika and develop a vaccine.
However, during the legislative process, Harry Reid had a change of heart, determining it would be more politically advantageous to have the funding bill fail so he could turn around and blame Republicans ahead of the November elections.
Harry Reid’s Senate Democrats quickly fell in line. They have blocked several attempts to pass the Zika funding and get it to the president’s desk, a flip-flop from supporting funding to opposing it. In fact, all but one Senate Democrat who voted for the $1.1 billion to fight Zika in May then voted against it this summer at Reid’s request.
To provide cover for such craven politicization of what was originally a slam-dunk bipartisan bill, Reid scripted one-sentence sound bites for his Democratic candidates to repeat on the campaign trail when voters demand an explanation for the flip-flopping filibuster.
The factual basis behind Reid’s talking points falls apart upon a quick analysis.
First, Democratic leaders have claimed the Zika funding package reduces access to contraceptives, a claim that is flat-out false. The truth is that the bill does not prohibit any birth control services or any health service.
What Democrats are really referring to is their newly invented demand for an earmark for abortion providers such as a Planned Parenthood affiliate in Puerto Rico. This was a demand that even the President’s supplemental request would not have funded.
In doing so, they conveniently ignore the fact that the bill provides funding for health providers at community health centers, public health departments, hospitals, and through any provider on the island that accepts Medicaid.
The flow of funding is common sense. In Zika-ravaged Puerto Rico, twenty community health centers served more than 300,000 people last year, compared to 8,000 people served at the island’s Planned Parenthood affiliate. These health centers are important because they provide not just reproductive health care for moms, but also prenatal care for pregnant women, and newborn and pediatric care for their at-risk children. Nothing could be more important for a child affected by Zika virus than to have continuity of care, seamlessly from before birth to after birth. Senate Democrats apparently disagree because they would rather see that funding go to groups that offer fewer health services, but do donate to their campaigns.
Then there are the environmental smoke and mirrors. In an attempt to appeal to the fringe, left-wing environmental groups that support their campaigns, Democrats are even criticizing an effort to kill Zika-carrying mosquitos. Democrats are protesting a policy rider that would temporarily remove layers of redundant red tape to allow vector control organizations to use public health insecticides to kill mosquitos and fight Zika. These are the very same insecticides that have been approved by the CDC and EPA to combat mosquito-borne diseases.
This is the sort of warped logic coming from Washington that the American people are justifiably sick and tired of. To be fair, Harry Reid is not the only person to blame.
While President Obama berates Congress to “do its job” and pass Zika funding that his own party is filibustering, the reality is that right now his administration is sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars that can immediately be used to fight Zika.
The only rationale behind the president’s refusal to make use of those funds is to double-down on Harry Reid’s strategy to place blame on Congressional Republicans.
This is a dangerous game to play. While we may have close to sufficient funds to combat the Zika virus for the rest of the year, the long-term consequences of continued Democratic obstructionism of Zika funding will be severe.
The National Institutes of Health is currently developing a vaccine for the Zika virus, but is running low on funds. Unless Congress approves the $1.1 billion in funding, the vaccine effort could stall, and Zika will be back next year and emerge as a crisis for many more Americans.
Harry Reid’s closing scene in the long drama of his failed tenure as Democrat Leader may very well be his success in killing Zika funding legislation. If his obstructionism succeeds, the consequences will reverberate in communities across America long after he retires next January. People’s lives are literally at stake.
Let’s hope that Reid’s Democratic colleagues muster up the political courage to stand up to him and put the welfare of the American people ahead of reckless election-year political games.
Regardless of our ideological leanings or partisan affiliations, we should all hope that the end of Harry Reid’s tenure in the Senate will also bring an end to the culture of hyperpartisan brinksmanship that he established in the Senate. It’s a toxic culture that has brought us to the point where Congress can’t even pass a bill to save the lives and health of the most vulnerable among us.
Let’s hope, for the sake of our nation, that we can and will do better.
Thom Tillis is the United States Senator for North Carolina. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Tillis directly advocates for North Carolina’s rich military tradition, our veterans, and men and women currently in uniform. Tillis also sits on the Banking, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, Judiciary Committee, and the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Follow him on Twitter @SenThomTillis.